Anti-intellectualism in American Life

Commenting on my TdJ post on “American exceptionalsim”, Douglas Walker wrote, in part:

America is exceptional because it has nurtured a people who view the world as one of grandeur beyond the ability of mere mortals to comprehend. For this reason, the typical American tends to be anti-intellectual, in the best sense of the word. Pragmatic and forward looking in their view of the world, Americans are not seeking intricate theoretical explanations of philosophical notions about the nature of the world but simple practical ideas relevant to the problems of an active life.

Responding to Douglas, I wrote (in part):

Douglas, you seem to agree with de Tocqueville’s observation that Americans’ “strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, … seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts ….” In short, the typical 19th century American was very practical and anti-intellectual, except for “religion alone [, which] bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven”. Unlike de Tocqueville, though, you consider anti-intellectualism to be a virtue, not a character flaw.

All this led me to recall a book I read fifty years ago as an undergraduate student of history. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life (Knopf, 1963), written by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970). I was unable to locate a copy of the book but, in my search, I did find a wonderful review. It was written about a year ago by American journalist Nicholas Lemann. I would like to share a few extracts of the review with you. To download and read the full review, click on the link below.

The main point I take from Lemann is that Hofstadter, unlike Alex de Tocqueville, felt that anti-intellectualism was a natural, perhaps even necessary, aspect of democratic society. I hope soon to re-read Hofstadter’s book to see if I agree with Lemann’s interpretation of it. After 50 years, my memory is not very clear.

Here are extracts from Lemann’s review that I most enjoyed.

Hofstadter definitely does not see anti-intellectualism as the corrupting serpent in the American Eden. Instead, as he demonstrates, it has been deeply ingrained in the national culture from the very beginning. In Hofstadter’s view, there have been only two cohorts of intellectuals who have been able to set the overall tone for the country, the Puritan ministers and the Founding Fathers, but both had relatively brief heydays. Of the many forces arrayed against intellectualism, Hofstadter returns most often to evangelical religion—an almost constantly strong influence through all of American history—and business, especially the cheerleading tendency in business …. Education, the main institutional countervailing force to anti-intellectualism, has been continually invaded by anti-intellectual ideas, especially the idea that practical training should take precedence over book-learning, and the idea that schools should attend more closely to the emotional well-being of their students than to their instruction. Of course both these ideas are still very much with us today. ….

[It is important to bear in mind that,] to Hofstadter, intellectualism is not at all the same thing as intelligence or devotion to a particular set of ideas. It … actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter. Being himself an exemplar of his conception of the intellectual, he saw the essential problem that is the subject of the book as being an unresolvable tension between intellectualism and democracy ….

If Hofstader could see America 50 years after Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published, what would he think? Much of what American intellectuals these days seem to find shocking would not surprise Hofstadter in the slightest—for example, the Tea Party movement, or people who refuse to vaccinate their children against diseases, or the idea of paying schoolteachers on the basis of numerical measures of how well they confer skills to their students. Similar movements began appearing in the early 19th century and have never gone away. History is an essential corrective to the impulse to see the controversies of the present as uniquely vexing. ….

Anti-intellectualism has always been with us, and always will be; that isn’t shameful, because it’s an aspect of our being a democracy. …. Experts, Hofstadter reminds us, have been important since early in the 20th century, but to point out that our complex society increasingly needs people who are intelligent and have formal technical education to staff government and business is not the same thing as saying that the United States has a rich intellectual life. Experts try to dwell in the realm of rigorously derived knowledge and facts. Intellectuals dwell in the much more difficult realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification, and where contention, contradiction, and uncertainty are inescapable. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life. If you ever begin to think of American life as a struggle between the superior, enlightened few and the mass of yobs, pick up Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It ought to cure you.

Nicholas Lemann, “The American Way“, Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2014.

Nicholas Lemann (born 1954) is Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

My thinking is still not clear on this subject. Intellectuals, as Hofstadter used the term, are free-thinkers. If intellectuals are outsiders in a democracy, they must be outsiders in any society, almost by definition.

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One Response to “Anti-intellectualism in American Life”

  1. I would like to remind readers that I do not agree with the entire content of every thought that I post. I would not, for example, classify Puritans as ‘intellectuals’, as Hofstadter (according to Lemann) did.